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 Not just different dialects... but different languages - Popwatch N°10 - Winter-Spring 1999 / An interview with Robert Wyatt by Dave Cross


An interview with Robert Wyatt by Dave Cross

The way he sees it, there are two different Robert Wyatt.

The first was Robert Wyatt the bi-ped. As late-60s guideposts of British avant garde freak culture, the Soft Machine had few peers and certainly no rivals. A necessary ingredient to all great rock bands is tension and infighting, without which you wind up with a rather bland end product. There was an overabundance of tension in Soft Machine (whose great name certainly outlived the effectiveness of the band itself) and most of those involved can't look back at their tenure with fondness. Few members of the Softs ever transcended being a "former Soft Machine member". Luckily, Wyatt was first and foremost in distancing himself from his former band - a move that would allow him to go from flower-child freak to far-left political advocate with credibility intact.

After being booted his band (still a source of much bitterness for him), Wyatt formed Matching Mole. At that point, perhaps not distanced far enough from his former unit (indeed, the name Matching Mole was a pun drawn from the French translation of Soft Machine), the Mole was not the greatest financial or critical success. Wyatt folded the first version and was in the process of reforming a more compatible Matching Mole when he fell out a window, breaking his back, and permanently winding up in a wheelchair.

The second Robert Wyatt emerged in 1974 with the release of his fully realized lyrical, political, and musical vision. Although Rock Bottom was actually his second solo record, by all accounts it was the perfect debut of the fully mature Robert Wyatt. Intense, harrowing, and introspective, the record was a critical success, and soon Robert found himself on the English charts with a couple of successfully, designed and executed singles. As Robert would later say, "I'm a girl who likes to say yes".

Soon after, punk rock would rear its ugly head. Rather than take the reactionary view of many of his former colleagues, Wyatt embraced the post-punk culture and worked with some of the leading lights of post-punk U.K. Although it was never meant to last as a permanent document, Wyatt's work of the early 1980s is both politically vitriolic ans musically superb. No thinly veiled political art rock hinting at Communist orientation, Robert's work for Rough Trade is direct and personal. It's as if he's singing those songs just for you; perhaps his most endearing and long-lasting trait.

There are always long gaps in the recorded history of Robert Wyatt. It's as if he realizes no one will ever forget about him, or else he'll reinvent himself to a brand new audience whenever he decided to return. Whatever the reason, the 90s have only seen two new Wyatt releases so far (there were two compilations as well). His latest, Shleep, is a superb romp through many of Robert's old musical playgrounds with cutting-edge jazzbos bumping heads with pop superstar understatement. But don't think for a second that all the high-profile guest stars or superbly glossed production can overshadow. Mr. Wyatt himself. He's the little wizard waving his wand over this whole alchemic brew; at point it comes off like a digital retelling of his classic Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, other times there are elements of most of his other works.

1998 has been a very busy year for Robert Wyatt. The U.K. release of Shleep finally landed in the U.S., thanks to Thirsty Ear. Additionally, Hannibal/Ryko in the U.K. are readying most of the Wyatt back catalog for reissue on CD (likewise to follow shortly thereafter in the U.S.., again on Thirsty Ear).


Popwatch - You play trumpet on your new record, Shleep.

Robert - Yeah.

Have you played trumpet on any of your prior records?
I don't think I ever did, although I seem to remember playing a trumpet mouthpiece solo, an imitation Roy Eldridge trumpet mouthpiece solo, on an ancient thing of Daevid Allen's about being an Australian, called "Fred The Fish," in about 1966. I always played mouthpiece at home and I studied it a bit at school, but I didn't like the music I was being taught and I couldn't really read the little dots. So I dropped the lessons and, in fact, left school when I was about 16 altogether. Long before I was even singing, the ultimate sound in my head that a human could make was Miles Davis with a mute. That's always been my favorite sound in the world. And now all my heroes on the trumpet are dead... I just wanted to remind myself of some of the sounds of the trumpet. That was all really.

Does this make you approach composition of melody a little differently?
I think possibly because that was what I was listening to that that's what comes out a bit. I'm not a singer that is obviously influenced by singers. I don't even think about the art of singing, really, when I'm singing. I'm thinking about the notes. And when I think about notes I think about the musicians I like rather than any particular singers. Although I've got to enjoy some singers more recently.

It definitely sounds like your took your time on this new record and really worked it quite a bit, using editing techniques and other studio features that really aren't on a lot of your other records.
That's right. It's just that the circumstances were there, basically. It was just a nice atmosphere being in a studio run by a musician, who's an old friend as well you know... and he helped. We were just able to go back and rework things.

How long did it take you to record this album?
Well, the actual recording time... I work pretty fast, but it was spread out. I would do a couple of days recording and then take the tapes home for sometimes a week or two or more. It was over a year ago... for maybe a couple of months. About a year ago (1/97-ed.) I was right in the middle of it I suppose

How was it working with Brian Eno in 1997?
Just the same! He hasn't changed at all. He's just so fast in the studio. All the particular things that I'm illiterate about... which is like what the little buttons on the machine do and so on... he's quick and fast and very imaginative.
Perhaps he's even quicker and faster now. He gets so quickly to what he wants to do. He doesn't spend hours thinking, "Maybe we can do this." He sort of hears something and calculates an appropriate response, such as the kind of dripping water sound on track two; he got that in minutes really, from hearing the track, and it just goes so well with the cymbal. He just seems to be able to make the machine do it. Whereas other people can do these things but they take hours to find the place on the machine.

It's an interesting combination, putting Brian Eno and Evan Parker together.
Well they're from completely different disciplines. Not just different dialects but different languages almost. But they're both very interested in the idea of not relying on musical clichés or at least making their own language.


Evan Parker being a huge, huge European sax giant.
He is indeed. I think he is one of the few non-American musicians from the jazz tradition who's made a distinct contribution that you could say is not just participating in the American tradition.
There are a few, like Django Reinhart, and I think he is one of those in my opinion.

You work with Paul Weller on the new record as well.
He was recording anyway, on and off, in Phil's studio, and I left him a little note saying hello really. He said if I needed any strumming on any songs that he'd be happy to give it a try.
There were a couple of tunes, particularly the one by Mark Kramer which I'd altered a bit, "Free Will and Testament," and then the sort of Bob Dylan blues thing at the end, which is really just a blues with slightly altered changes. He just seemed to feel very comfortable with those. He really worked hard. I was very grateful because he was right in the middle of doing his own trio LP, Heavy Soul. It would've been perfectly acceptable had he said, "I can't think about anything else right now," but he loves to play as long as it's serious. He doesn't like fucking about, he likes to get on with it. I was very honored that he spent the time for me.

You play with some other old friends on Shleep. Phil Manzanera makes an appearance.
Yeah, he does. He was sort of hovering about discreetly... because he knows the studio so well. He also knows my music better than I do. We have a mutual friend in Bill MacCormick, the bass player I used to work with. I think they were school friends, they had a group together before I knew either of them. So he knows what I do and he knows what his studio does. He didn't intrude in any way, but he was discreetly extremely helpful and just made things easier. And he played, of course, on the only track that I really wrote with Alfie... that Alfie was part of the actual writing of the song in the first place, which was " Alien." He played on that. Alfie is very happy with that solo, which is good because that was a very important track for us. It's something of an innovation in the sense that it was a real collaboration. I mean, the word collaboration is used a lot, but that was a real one.

Was Alfie in the studio when you recorded that?
Yeah. She actually sort of wrote what the voices ought to be like. She wanted that effect of accumulating strands, not in terms of just a choir effect but of loose, accumulating strands getting slightly denser towards the end. She mixed the vocals and got the sound on each one... sometimes she would have a bit of treatment on one word and take it off the next word. It was very much her project as well as mine and then Phil just put the icing on the cake.

You work quite a bit with Alfie on this record.
Yeah, that's right. Well this, in common with the last recording, she wrote about half the lyrics as well as ideas on the musical side of how to do things.

You play with another old friend, trombonist Annie Whitehead.
It's funny, because when people think about the musicians I work with they tend to think about the people in the groups I was in when I was a drummer.
But in fact, a lot of the people I know best are musicians that I've known, really, since that period. Since the 7Os in particular... from being around the little jazz clubs in London. Annie, like Evan Parker, spent a lot of time with the African musicians I knew - Dudu Paquan and so on - and that's really how we became friends. We did actually record together once, on Jerry Dammers' recording, but I just really like her. The thing is that she's also a composer and arranger and I really wanted somebody who could think a bit Mingus and not just play a solo.

Is writing lyrics something you've had difficulty with on the past couple records?
Funny... none of the things I am, like being a singer or a songwriter, I never really planned to be any of these things. I'm still surprised that that's what I seem to be and I'm amazed that I still do it. It really surprises me when I write any songs at all - not that I don't write more. I'm really grateful to Alfie though. She doesn't write lyrics as lyrics, apart from "Alien"; she actually writes them as autonomous little pieces and I tend to just steal things from her poetry notebooks and sketchbooks and so on. And that's very useful to me. I have difficulty very often, working from words to music... that way around... but in the case of Alfie's things, I've been through a lot of what she writes about with her. Apart from "Pa in Madrid" which was, of course, a trip she took with her own father to Madrid. So I find I can empathize very closely with what she writes. I mean, I was with her when the swallows disappeared into the sky. I've watched swifts with her. I've seen the same little sparrow underneath the postbox. So it's easy for me to write tunes for that.

There are a couple of thematic strings running through Shleep, one being sleep and another being migratory birds.
Yeah. That's right.

Is it a concept album?
No, absolutely not. A concept album suggests a predetermined plan, and if anything I think less and less about what I'm doing as I get older. I'm working more on a kind of infantile instinct level... just doing what feels right and alive. I used to be much more theoretical than I am now. I've done my, sort of, theoretical homework and I know what I think, and I don't even think about what I think about anymore. And so it's other people's guess, really, as to how these images resonate. Their guess is as good as mine.

Are you thinking in terms of recording another album anytime soon?
Well, I've got bits of more material. It's a question of not recording more than I can deal with at any one moment because I like to tackle each song in its own right. Each song might require quite a different treatment so I don't want to get into sort of a factory process thing. I've noticed that with even some musicians that I really like, especially on the CDs, they just go on and on and on and you feel like after about a half an hour that that whole way of doing things is sort of starting to repeat itself too much and I don't want to do that. So I keep material back. But I've been asked to do a couple of things for other people which I'll get out of the way first... before I get back on to the next thing.

It seems like you're an ideal artist for 7" records. It's too bad they've gone away.
What do you mean, like singles and things?

Exactly. Like the series of singles you made for Rough Trade.
Well it's funny that you should say that. Rough Trade has a singles club, which is a just a subscription-only thing, where they issue one single a month on vinyl with a proper packet. A couple of months ago they... although I'm not on Rough Trade anymore... Geoff Travis at Rough Trade asked me and Hannibal Records if they could use a couple of tracks of mine for one of their singles. They used "Free Will and Testament" and on the other side they put an earlier piece, one of Alfie's things, "Sight of the Wind" from Dondestan. And it was just as a single just for their club, so it was nice to see that. It was very nostalgic. In the 50s, when I was a lad, you got jazz on singles. There were Thelonious Monk singles let alone more obviously commercial things like Art Blakey and Cannonball Adderly and Joe Zawinful and that kind of thing - you know before Weather Report he was working with Cannonball - and that merged into some kind of Nina Simone and Ray Charles stuff and the soul records. And the best jukeboxes in London... I just loved them for that and I do miss that.

Do you have any other thoughts on the album?

Only that there are things that I would now do differently. Brian, for example, sang on the first track, and now listening to it I would have his voice equal up with mine when he comes in. And I regret the fact that I don't think my voice is quite good enough on its own in the verses. That's the thought I have on that! It's a very simple point but there's a couple of little bits like that, and I'm also a bit worried about my drumming as I get older. Having heard some of my drumming 20 years ago I'm not sure how long that I can get away with it.

I think you can get away with it for a little while longer.
(Laughs) Thank you.

Has drumming affected your health at all? I hear Rashid Ali has quite bad tendonitis.
Oh, goodness me. I know Jerry Dammers has that. That's a terrible curse for musicians. I've heard there are some ways of dealing with it, but... that would be a nightmare. No, I don't have any problem with that. I think that what the real problem is - it's an obvious thing about being a paraplegic really, or maybe it's not so obvious - even if you're just keeping time with your right hand there's something about squeezing the hi-hat with your left foot which keeps your whole body at one. You know, working as a single (piece of) athletic machinery. Whereas when you're just working with your hands, even like playing bass drum by hand on overdubs of the song, it's harder to get that organic unity in the playing. It's as simple as that really.

You seem to regret a lot of the decisions you've made.
Well, some people are very good at the actual craft of living. I seem to spend a lot of time at the wrong place at the wrong time. Or trying to be harmless and actually fucking people up a bit, like Alfie's career for example.

Oh no.
No, really, I feel very uneasy and I think it's because I just can't work it out. There are moments, especially when I sing on other people's records, say, Hapless Child, or more recently for John Greaves (a bass player here in Europe), that if I just did one thing then I could really get around that. But when I'm working on things then I try to think like a drummer or a keyboard player or a composer or a word writer and then I'm just not sure what I'm meant to be. And I've got an awful feeling that just 5 minutes before the end I'll suddenly realize which one I should be (laughs). How I should have approached it all. I wish we could have a test run - it's an old cliché, I know. I just feel like we're all in a play on a stage but nobody's given us a script and there are about eight directors going around shouting out different instructions. And nobody knows who's supposed to be on the stage and who is supposed to be off it, and that's life (laughs).

If we could, I'd like to discuss some of your early band history. Did the Daevid Allen Trio actually participate in a multimedia event with Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs in 1963?
I can't remember that! The thing is there was a lot of interest around jazz and poetry, that is, poetry, music and effects and other general things in the early 60s when I was in school. We got involved with various multimedia events but I don't ever remember doing anything with Burroughs, certainly. Daevid himself may very well have done so... he got around a lot more. I was just having left school and kind of not knowing what to do then. Daevid himself may have gotten in much more. I mean he was always moving around a lot. Going back and forth from Paris and Australia and all kinds of things. But, no. I consider that period just as an apprenticeship, in terms of what we were doing, more of a learning period really. It was like going to a school. Instead of going to university, because I couldn't afford a proper university with proper things, I went to a kind of culture university with people like Daevid.

The next band, The Wilde Flowers, seems to take a step back. They were more rhythm and blues based.
The Hopper Brothers were very locally based, in a way that I had never ever been in my head. You know, they were born and went to school and lived in one town. And they had a group that played in that town and they used to play, you know, material of the day that was on the charts that was do-able, and quite a lot of soul stuff as well. There again I was surprised, really, because I didn't used to live around there that often. When I had left them Brian had being trying to learn some Cannonball Adderly kind of thing on the saxophone and Hugh had been learning Charlie Haden things on bass... I came back and they were playing Chuck Berry tunes and I was as surprised as anybody! It was good fun drumming, and also socially it was a way of getting out of just playing in people's front rooms and sitting out in the hall. To get to play in public was a most incredible youthful discipline, and to play for dances, even more so.

Your next band was the Soft Machine. Obviously there's bad blood there.
I'm not going to go on about that, don't worry. I'd just like to say for the record that when things wind up badly it's difficult to recapture the hope and excitement that came before that, because it gets tainted.

How many times did Soft Machine tour America?
I don't know. We spent most of 1968 in America, following Hendrix around. ln the middle we did a few gigs on our own and Andy Summers came out and joined us for a little bit.

What was his role in the Soft Machine?
He just joined us on guitar about halfway through for a few weeks. I think he was on his way to the west coast, basically, because he had some friends in the Animals. Andy himself had been in a band called Zoot Money Big Roll Band - more or less a kind of a big band soul outfit. And, if fact, he had been the first person to be generous towards us in an interview in the press in England. He was interested in trying different things, away from just being a rhythm guitarist, so he joined us for a bit but he stayed, of course, out on the west coast.

There was another guitarist for the Soft Machine for a while, Larry Nolan.
He was an American lad. He was a very nice bloke... used to write words for songs. Yeah, I think it was sometime in the mid-60s, but he went back to America. In the end, with the guitar business... we never found a way with guitars. The main thing people seemed to have around that time seemed to be built around the guitar, whereas the music we were making and arranging didn't seem to be comfortable for guitarists. Which is why in the end we didn't have any.

How did the work on Picasso's play come about?
I can't really remember that. It could have been one of Daevid's Paris connections. It's simply where artistic Paris spends its summer and they would all organize various things, though it wasn't all French people down there. There were a lot of Americans there who I didn't know very much about. In fact, Taylor Mead and other people around the New York Andy Warhol circuit seemed to be down there as well. I loved Taylor Mead, he was a great man, very funny... and some other people. It was just that they needed music. We had already done music at the Fringe Edinburgh festival for "Ubu Roi," an Alfred Jarry play, and they wanted musicians that were comfortable outside the regular song format.

Did Soft Machine compose new material for that?
Yes. Yes, we did.

Did that ever get recorded?
I shouldn't think so. Mostly we played on a beach, in a big dome - a temporary structure that was built. A geodesic dome built by Keith Alban, right next to a German beer festival, I remember. That was a bizarre pairing. We had no money, we were just sleeping around on the beach, I think, half the time. Which you can just about do in summer at the south of France.

Could you put the Soft Machine into perspective for someone who's never heard them?
Ah. (Pause)

The thing is... I wouldn't use the word "rock" really. I would say that as a basis we used actual pop song type music. When you think of rock you think of a blues-based guitar, sort of getting heavier and heavier, based in rhythm and blues, and I don't think we were really anything to do with that. I think we were people who like improvising endlessly on fragments of pop songs. That's really what it was, that's the odd combination.

And huge volume.
Oh, it got very loud, yeah. Did you ever hear Lifetime, Tony Williams's band with Larry Young?

I sure have.
It seems like that was the kind of thing that happened around that period. In 1968 our rather steep learning curve - if I can use that very modern cliché - came from having to open for Jimi Hendrix every night. If you're playing in front of an audience of thousands of people who are restlessly waiting for perhaps the greatest rock performer of all time (laughs), they really get impatient unless you come up with something. It knocks the whimsy out of you and you really have to get tough and strong and get on with it. And so, after a year with Hendrix, certainly, that tended to be our approach.

Let's talk about Matching Mole. Certainly there's some similar ideas to the Soft Machine, but movement in a different direction.
That's right. Yeah, certainly from my point of view. I wanted to carry on playing drums and I was always looking for friends to play with. In the end, to be honest, I don't think I ever found somebody to play with. It may be my fault as a drummer, maybe I'm not playable with. Maybe I was never meant to be a drummer. As I'd said, at the end of my life I'll suddenly say "I wasn't meant to be a drummer" and the whole thing will make sense, but anyway... What I was pleased about was that we managed to record a couple LPs on which we got a lot of ideas that I had, and which the others had - Dave McRae, Dave Sinclair, and Bill (MacCormick). It was very democratic in a sense, but with the LPs in particular, the first Matching Mole record, I was able to anticipate what I was going to have to do later on my own on keyboards by doing so much Mellotron on the thing because it was in the studio. It gave me a better grasp on some of the harmonic implications of some of the tunes I was trying to write.

This was aIso the first appearance of your politicaI orientation.
Well I suppose so... in joke form anyway. Although funny enough, I think there's a couple Soft Machine songs where I refer to... I don't know what I was trying to say... "If I were black and I lived here I would want to be (a big man) in the CIA or the FBI." I don't know what that was about. I've always thought about these things.
The politicalization actually coincided with getting to know Alfie. And when I got to know Alfie, there were things around her flat which I had never seen before. Newspapers called the Workers Press and so on (laughs). Alfie's father had been a professor of Libriarianship and had set up Libraries in Trinidad and Nigeria. Between them, they were able to show me the other side. To me black culture had always been another aesthetic phenomena, like Picasso and his sculpture. I was just very grateful for what I consider the main ingredient to make the 20th century culture distinctive, which was the black contribution. In terms of all the music I'd heard - be it Bartok or Buddy Holly - the music that really struck me as having both the emotional and intellectual weight that I wanted was, in the end, Coltrane. So I'd always had this feeling of great gratitude to black culture and more and more, particularly in England... England really invented Apartheid, we distance ourselves from it superficially. Apartheid was a very European phenomenon, funny enough, and there were a lot of Africans who made us aware of that. Somehow you couldn't reconcile the enormous debt to black culture with the general way that black people were being treated politically and economically. You couldn't tally it. You couldn't reconcile it. It was via politics that I opted to try and make sense of that.

Do you continue to do that?
Yes, I do. I would say of all the illuminations of the way I think, the most consistently bright light in the dusty little attic of my brain is based on a few Marxist insights into the nature of power and economics - of who wields it and why. I'm not talking about a failed attempt to do anything about it. I'm simply talking about an analysis of how the world runs. The political analysis helps to sweep away some of the mystification which tends to be used by some of the conservatives to disguise what they are doing in the name of the church and patriotism and the family and all this sort of thing.

Let's jump ahead a couple years to Robert Wyatt the Rough Trade artist and your fierce political agenda of that time.

To me it is very interesting how the politics of the 80s finally played out.
Well, that would be true of any period. It would also be true of the 60s for me how that played out. Things have their life span. As I say, it's one thing that's really stayed with me. But it's just as you don't have to be a gospel singer if you're a Christian but you might make a few gospel records when you become involved in the first place, then it might just imbue the rest of your life. And I think this has happened with me with my political stuff. People always think reactionary means right wing reactionary; but I think I would call myself a left wing reactionary, that is to say, as harsh as the climate seems to be in terms of right wing ideas being sold around and being considered culturally accept able. I feel the need, not as a missionary or indeed to communicate at all, but just for my own mental well being, to kind of correct the balance in my own work.
So during the harshest period of Reaganomics and Cold War banalities, I felt the need to verify my own separateness from the actions of my own government at the time. As long as there was some form of alternative going on in the world, I would look hopefully at any of these developments. Of course, in the meantime, NATO and the World Bank Organization have won the Cold War. There is no one posing a serious challenge to the western victory in the Cold War. I'm not a revolutionary in the sense of starting something on my own. I can support people who are trying - and in there are people still resisting, I'm always very sympathetic. But the reality at the moment is the Cold War is over and our side lost.

I'm going to give you the names of some people you've worked with. If you could, give me a word or two about them. There's a lot, so if you get bored tell me to stop.

Jimi Hendrix.
A gentleman.

(Note from the ed. - OK, so the two-word answer wasn't such a great idea. It took Robert one name before he expanded his answers to a length that would give these folks some justice.)

Mongezi Feza.
This is not one word stuff you know. I feel like - and this is presumptuous - he feels like an alter ego to me. Someone I might have been. He was exactly the same age as me and he was 32 when he died. I almost feel like what I've read that twins feel when a twin dies. Not that I was that close to him but that's the feeling I had musically.

Syd Barrett.
Well I thought he was an extremely good songwriter and singer and I was very happy playing on Madcap Laughs, although he left the credits off because we were only practicing in the studio when he recorded it and he didn't want to embarrass us by putting our names on such a shambles, but I thought it was very witty. People think, "Was he mad?" "Was he crazy?" - and I didn't think that at all. A lot of people were crazy, but not Syd.

Dave McCrae.
He's the only session musician I can think of offhand who kept his soul.

Laurie Allen.
Laurie Allen's a great friend. There again - Alfie knew him before I did. And he used to play with the South African musicians with Chris MacGregor quite a lot. And he was the first person I thought of when I couldn't play drums. He would play what I would have wanted to play.

Kevin Ayers.
Kevin Ayers wrote perfectly formed songs right from the beginning. He didn't seem to have to learn how to do it. But I think he puts himself down too much. I've heard him say "The group got too clever/ jazzy/intellectual for me." He was very much one of the main minds behind the innovations and fresh ideas for new things that we were doing in the late 60s. I think one of the reasons he never became a pop star was he just had too many other ideas to obtain in the pop format.

Nick Evans.
Oh, Nick Evans... I think he's a math teacher now. He might even have been then. He's just a totally friendly jovial Welshman - and being slightly Welsh myself I'm quite happy about that - and a lovely trombonist. His big hero was Roswell Rudd, which is fairly appropriate.

Lol Coxhill.
Lol Coxhill is a wonderful musician. I've heard him, I'm sure, playing tenor. I asked him about that and he says "Oh no, no I don't do that." He's a very lyrical player and there again - he's a very good friend. When people are friends it's hard to say an objective thing like a critic might want or you as a writer might want. I mean, it was in his home that Alfie stayed when I was in hospital in 1973 because he lived in the same town as the hospital. He was so poor then. It's incredible - this man bringing up his two children on his own. You know that there's an old saying, "Those who have least give most," and in terms of material possessions Lol definitely qualifies for that remark.

Jerry Dammers.
Well, Jerry Dammers is someone I really miss. He's one of the people who was actually in the rock star industry who really did it consciously and did the right thing but kept it stylish, like Paul Weller. There is a way of doing that. You don't have to become a pranny. I think he put so much... he took his stuff so seriously that every penny he made went into things like Nelson Mandela's birthday party thing that he organized here - a massive concert with Harry Belafonte and so on. He really meant all that stuff and he got kind of lost in it.
I would like him to reemerge and play some more, because I'd hate to think... He's too young to die, you know? In fact Carla Bley said to me... when I was feeling old... she says, "Oh you've got to keep playing. Who do you think you are a fucking rock star?" (Laughs). I'm talking about Jerry, you know. He's too good to stop.

John Cage.
Oh, John Cage... the two interesting things about him that I recall... One was his interest in mushrooms, and I've since acquired a great interest in the biology of mushrooms as a kind of missing link between animals and plants in the sense that they can 't live directly off the earth. That might seem irrelevant to you. The other interest, I believe, was chess. In both cases they're studies which require meticulous indexing. A sort of scientific rigor in studying them - the very same characteristics he led the way in throwing aside in music. I think it's funny that he should still have this love of discipline and indexing but he stripped it away from music.

You have to be very disciplined with mushrooms.
(Laughs) Exactly, you can't be vague with a mushroom. You have to know what you've got there. (Laughs)

Gary Windo.
Well Gary was just a lovely tenor player really. I think he was quite unlike the musicians who were around in England, he was much more like the Americans and, I suppose, the African musicians in England. Although he was English, the fact that he had spent a long time in the States... for example, he played with Wayne Shorter's brother, a trumpet player in various jazz things, and was very much part of the post-Albert Ayler generation. Really, that wasn't happening in England at that time. The jazz musicians in England were more, I don't know, just not that anyway... much more academic. As a consequence of that I've really got on very good with English jazz musicians, and indeed I can't think of many who would work with me anyway because I would be considered too primitive. But not by Gary, and I'm grateful to him for that.

Mitch Mitchell.
You know, I think he's in some kind of hospital thing in America right now. He's been very ill recently, so I have thought about him in the last few years. He's a great drummer, very important. Hendrix benefited a great deal from having Mitch. I remember Mitch and I used to listen to a drummer who was actually a couple of years younger than both of us but we felt of as a kind of a mentor nonetheless - Tony Williams. The stuff he was doing when Miles was making the transition from the earlier forms of jazz to the later ones that he did. The fact that Mitch had that stuff in his mind and knew about it, as well as the more John Bonham heavy rock thing that the English drummers were doing around that time, made him really perfect for Hendrix. That also gave me confidence to move around the kit a bit in a way that I subsequently didn't.

Bill MacCormick.
Well, Bill... yeah. He was a very good bass player. He didn't play like a bass player, really. He didn't seem to play the sort of things bass guitarists are likely to play. He didn't really have a normal bass guitar sound at the time, but I found his playing very bright and imaginative. He was always trying to get the most out of things. He was very good company to have around at the time when we were very, well, destitute really, and things weren't working out. Things never worked out with Matching Mole, but he was always good fun and cheerful and that kept us going.

Richard Sinclair.
He's just an extremely good organ player. It seemed very difficult at the time for players, especially people playing the Hammond, to find a way of playing that wasn't simply based on the Jimmy Smith or Booker T way of playing it. I think that some of them who did play that way were wonderful, and in England there were Georgie Fame and Zoot Money who did so and very well indeed. But he found another way... much more pastoral, a much more European sound and harmonic sensibility which fitted the tunes I was working on at the time perfectly, and I'm very grateful for that.

Daevid Allen.
Daevid. Ah, yeah. Now that's a difficult one. That's really a long way back. My father didn't approve of him, really, when he stayed at our house when I was a teenager. I think the main thing was that he provided an escape route for me from school, of which I was a total failure. He was a lot older than us, certainly a lot older than me. And in the early 60s, maybe even the late 50s, he got a houseboat in Paris and I went and stayed with him there and got a taste of what was then the underground focused around Paris and the jazz musicians there. Various pre-psychedelic people like Brion Gysin and so on. He opened some doors. The official doors of schooling had been a total failure in my life, so Daevid did show me there are whole other worlds out there to make. You don't have to worry about being a failure in school.

Daevid is going to be 60 this year.
I think he always was, wasn't he? He always seemed like he had that guru thing.

Phil Miller.
I think the real thing about Phil was that he really liked to work on a harmonic thing and chords and so on on his guitar, and I think that really the most appropriate things done with Phil was when he had actually wrote the pieces for which I was able to write songs. It was one of those periods when I was torn between being a drummer and a singer in that sense... in the Mole... and I could do it both on record. Things like the tune "God Song," which enabled me to write a song that really meant a lot to me to write, and I couldn't have done it without his music suggesting the phrasing. I would have liked to have pursued that side of it more rather than the live things we were trying to do.

Hugh Hopper.
He was a school friend from the age of 10 or 11, I suppose. I've always enjoyed singing his tunes, he himself doesn't sing. He has a harmonic slant on things that I've always found very compatible with the way I sing. And of course I'm still singing some of his songs. On Dondestan I sang a tune of his, I think it's "Left on Man"; and there again on this LP, "Was A Friend" is a Hugh Hopper tune. That must be the longest-running musical association I've ever had, as sparse as it is these days.

Carla Bley.
Oh, Carla's great! This morning I was just listening to a record, actually by her daughter, her and Mike Mantler's daughter, Karen Mantler. I love that record. I've got an LP and a CD by Karen and one of the things is that Karen has learned so much from her mother - the throwaway irony of the lyrics, and the meticulously interesting harmonic developments - she hates a boring harmonic progression and always puts a little angle in there with a kind of dry wit. It's a family trait, I think. Carla was very, very funny to work with. She said, "You have to be tough, if you run a band in New York you've got to be tough." And indeed she was extremely tough, and you could see why. She was very , very witty and had extremely sensible ears. Her father apparently was a piano teacher. She was Swedish - her name was Carla Borg before she married Paul Bley. I had to sing a John Cage song once and it was she who taught me what the notes were.

Mike Ratledge.
Ah, yes. Well, I can't think of very much there. Too much blood has flown under the bridge.

Elvis Costello.
A wonderful bloke. He kept his enthusiasm going all the time when I met him. There again, like Jerry Dammers, he didn't become a blasé supercilious rock star. I've never known anybody with such wide-ranging tastes that he actually did something about. He would work with the Brodsky String Quartet, he would get Chet Baker into the studio, he tried his hand at country music. He was just awestruck by the whole business of music and being allowed to participate in it.
A very, very nice man.

Lindsay Cooper.
I spoke to her about 2 days ago. Of course I've sung a couple of her tunes written with Chris Cutler. I liked all of those musicians very much from the Henry Cow setup, and she was always very inventive in that genre of playing, and a good bassoon player. But you know she's very ill now. I don't know if you knew that.

Yeah. She has multiple sclerosis and, in fact, she's had it for apparently 10 years. She just didn't want to face it herself. And then she decided to sort of say it because she was having such difficulty doing anything. So she's now, as it were, come out with it and has let it be known, so it's alright for me to tell you. I'm very pissed off about that because she can't really function as she did at all.

Fred Frith.
There's a side of Fred that I would have really brought out more. I would have really liked to worked with Fred in a group. I think that if I had found him earlier we could have been in a late 60s group together somehow. Some sort of Henry Machine or Soft Cow or something.

Soft Cow.
(Laughs) Because there's something wistful about meeting someone I felt so compatible with, almost at the end of my career as a drummer or as a group musician. But still, I enjoyed singing with their band, and now particularly I'm having to listen through lots of stuff of mine because it's being reissued by Ryko, and some of it's lasted better than others. At the moment some of the stuff I most enjoy is the duet with him on piano doing his tune "Muddy Mouse/Muddy Mouth" on an LP I did called Ruth is Stranger Than Richard in the mid-70s. It's just wonderful how lyrical it is. He could easily have any kind of career apart from the, kind of, post-Derek Bailey career he has chosen.

Pye Hastings.
Blimey, I haven't heard that name for a long time. There's the brothers of course, him and Jimmy Hastings, the saxophone player. He was a fine musician. He was never amateurish in the way he played guitar. He didn't seem to go through that period like the rest of us went through, I think, perhaps having an older brother who was a superbly schooled musician. Actually, there's a session musician who never lost his soul - another one to add to the short list - his older brother. But I haven't heard from Pye or had any contact with him for decades.

Brian Eno.
Oh! Brian Eno... well, yeah. just a good friend - really helpful. What can I say? He's helped me out of some difficult things. Like a couple of years ago all the microphones I'd had for 20 years, they all started to pack up, and it was Brian who sent me a permanent loan of really good new ones for me to work at home on. Things like that. So he's not just knowledgeable, he's sort of generous like that. He likes to help things happen.

Elton Dean.
Elton. Well, the thing is... I remember hearing him with Keith Tippett's band and asked if I could borrow their front line for the group in 1968 or 1969. But it was, in fact, him that got me kicked out of the Soft Machine because he didn't like the singing, I don't think, and he didn't like the more heavy side of my drumming. He wanted that sort of free jazz thing. Well, I had been listening to free jazz in the late 50s and early 60s and I didn't want to do that again. But he got the others to out-vote me and to get rid of me. So there again, it's a bit similar to the previous question about the organist.

Nick Mason.
Yeah, well, drummers often become friends with drummers of different groups... and there's no exception there. The Pink Floyd did a benefit concert for us when I had my accident, and sort of to return the favor - I mean, I couldn't return the favor - but I invited Nick to sort of produce Rock Bottom and we became good friends at that time, him and his wife, Lindy. We used to go see them and we developed some mutual friends like Carla Bley and Mike Mantler, who we also did things with later, and in fact when they did a record together, called Fictious Sports, they asked me to sing the tunes, and I really enjoyed doing that. It was very nice to be on their record and to just sing something without having the responsibility for the rest of the band.

Michael Mantler.
Well, Mike got us to sing... I think Carla sent him a copy of Rock Bottom and said "Here's a singer we can use." I don't really know how it happened, but that gave me the opportunity to sing with the most transcendental rhythm section I could have imagined which was Jack Dejohnette on drums, Steve Swallow on bass, and Carla Bley on piano. I doubt if I'll ever work with a better group than that.

Evan Parker.
Evan Parker is one of the few European musicians who've taken an extended line of late Coltrane and turned it into a whole new thing... both on tenor and soprano saxophone. Although with his music he sticks very firmly to a serious line of approach. He himself is a very eclectic listener. Which is why I didn't feel too nervous about asking him to play on my record.

Alfie Benge.
What can I say? She's sitting here. (Laughs) Well, we've been together since the early 70s - I think that, really, we are a group. People think I've been in two groups, but in fact I've been in three. The longest lasting one, the one that's really worked, has been me and Alfie. In every possible way. And when I say every possible way that's exactly what I mean. So, there you are.

While it may be perfectly clear to many people who Robert Wyatt is, far fewer have a clear understanding exactly who Alfreda Benge is. Before you even listen to a Robert Wyatt album you first have an impression created by the accompanying art. From the debut underwater seascape of Rock Bottom to the dry abstract expressionist deserts of Old Rottenhat and Work In Progress right through to the ultimate slumber/dream accompaniment of his excellent current endeavor, Shleep - all have had superbly executed visual echoes of Robert's musical worlds, and all were created by Alfie Benge.

Sadly, in pursuit of the bigger picture, Alfie has let credit slip where credit is due; many of the older CD issues of Robert Wyatt albums feature little or no documentation as to where the source art originated. Hopefully, this will deservedly be rectified by the current spate of reissues by Hannibal/Ryko/Thirsty Ear. If not, perhaps this will help shed some more light on the subject.

I didn't ask Alfie if she has done other interviews, but you can bet that she probably hasn't done very many...

PW - You've done illustrations for a children's book?
Alfie - Yeah. Two children's books, which are out of print now. Ivor Cutler wrote the stories. Do you know of Ivor Cutler who's on the end of Rock Bottom?

Yes. How did that come about? Did he approach you with that?
Yes. He suggested to his publisher that they see my paintings and so I went along and showed them my work. I was going to do four but, in fact, it took 6 months to do each of them and in the end my eyes almost closed with straining because they were so tiny... tiny paintings. I ended up just doing the two: Herbert the Chicken and Herbert the Elephant. (Laughs)

So he lined it up with the publisher.
Yes, he had worked with quite a few illustrators in the past but they were usually ones that were known to the publisher, so he suggested that I may be able to do it. He's a very encouraging person. He gives people confidence; he tells you you're wonderful and makes you believe you can do anything. It was not what I'd been used to because obviously making 24 pages match each other and all of the people look the same and inventing characters is not the same as doing one-off paintings, but I was very pleased with them. I think they're rather good. But like all these things, poor ducks, they go off the shelves. I still get a few pennies every year from libraries. So they exist somewhere, but they're unbuyable. They don't exist anymore.

When did you do those?
Round about '82. The beginning of the 80s... and the next one in '83 or something.

Did you do much illustration other than that?
Other stuff... yeah. I did a bit for a magazine called Time Out... a few things. Obviously Robert's covers, a couple of Fred Frith covers, an Annette Peacock cover... I was trying to be a painter, so it wasn't a career that I was after. I can only really do things if I can connect with them. I mean, I couldn't do a cover for the Rolling Stones. I'd have to know the person and know their inside really.

Have you made some films?
Well, I went to film school. I had a long art school history - I did painting, then I did graphics, then
I went to film school. Obviously at film school I made films. After I left school I had an extraordinary job called Films Officer at IBM, which was a strange thing for me, and if you knew me you'd think it was really strange. And then I did a bit of editing here and there, just before Robert's accident. In England, to work in big stuff at the time you had television or industrial films and quite boring things. I did do one film for the BBC at the end of my student days. I was paid for a half hour thing. And then I got a job as a third assistant editor, which is just basically writing down numbers on "Don't Look Now," a Nick Roeg film with Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. But I was just in the cutting room and that was going to get me my union ticket which was quite hard to get in England at that time. So it meant you were much freer to get good jobs. That was in Venice - Robert came with me and wrote Rock Bottom there. Not long afterwards he came back and had his accident and I had to decide what to do... throw him in the river or look after him. At first he wasn't as independent and obviously needed looking after. So I thought the film industry is a bit of a racket, really. I'll give it up... and I hadn't done any painting for about 12 years and Robert said "Why don't you do the Rock Bottom cover?" and that started me back on painting, which I could do at home. So I had meant to keep carrying on in the film industry but gave it up. But last year I did a tiny, sort of, job of rewriting some dialogue in an Aaron Rudolph film. Do you know Aaron Rudolph?

He a sort of protégé of Robert Altman. Occasionally I get dragged back to do little things, basically by Julie Christie, who's my old friend, and she finds things that she occasionally needs me for.

For Robert's covers, what one's have you done?
I've done everything since Rock Bottom except the "Shipbuilding" cover. I remembered Stanley Spencer's wonderful painting and thought nobody could do it better than that. And it turned out we were able to use it for nothing so... apart from that, I've done them all, except for the compilations that have been out of our control

You've worked in a couple different mediums on his covers too. On Nothing Can Stop Us it's some sort of graphic illustration.
It was just a pen drawing. Rock Bottom was pencil, Ruth and Richard was gouache, and then the rest have been oils. They're all oil paintings now. I did graphic design and typography and that kind of stuff, so I really enjoy doing things which are more abstract. Where you're using space and things.
That's one half of what I can do and the other half is strange, narrative pictures with people and stories and goings-on in them. Also, I do very uncharacteristic charcoal drawings which are quite... stronger.
I mean, I draw from life and I paint from my head, basically, and the drawings don't look like mine at all. That's the range, really.

Do you paint specifically for a purpose or do you paint for the sake of painting?
My dream would to be able to paint for the sake of painting all the time, but life gets in the way most of the time... either crisis or something else to do.
When Robert's working I'm also his manager, so I have to do incredibly dull things like the accounts and arguing about contracts, and I'm also his roadie, so I have to get him from A to B. I'm also his nurse, and things in the world happen which need shouting about and you have to go about shouting, protesting about them. So, I get dragged away from the idea of just painting. I mean, if I had a wife I think I'd paint more, but I haven't got a wife.


I was very grateful to CBS, I have to say, for the opportunity to go into the studio and make an album. I don't think they realized that I was going to make a totally improvised album like that, and I didn't get invited back. One of the things that mucks up some of the earlier memories is that we didn't get any more money from those early records at all. None of them. Our managers were total crooks and since they are dead I can name them: Mike Jeffries and Chas Chandler. I mean they just took everything. The record companies were no help, they seemed to close rank with managers rather than see musicians go their dues. In my real life I don't remember much peace and love in the music industry era at all. Having said that, I was very happy to have the chance to record, there again, to play piano and do my little Cecil Taylor impersonations. I think everybody should have a got at their Cecil Taylor impersonations.


In my mind, if I ever made a transition from adolescence to adulthood it was by that record. People think it must have been a very tragic period of my life, with breaking my back and all, but 1974 was the happiest moment of my life. The record came out, it came out how I wanted it to come out, it was made with friends. Alfie married me on the day it came out, which was a disgracefully self-sacrificial thing of her to do, but made me feel great.


On that record I wanted to give the musician I was working with more space to do their own thing. I set up "Team Spirit" as a tenor solo for George Kahn.
And there again - I got Fred Frith to play some of his own tunes - still some of the favorite things I've ever recorded actually, "Muddy Mouse/Muddy Mouth."
In fact, before doing those tunes he played this note, I can't remember what it was, some sort of high D or even an E flat, and I said to Fred, "I can't sing that," and Fred says, "Yes, you can. Your range is from a low F to a high F#." He listened to my records and knew exactly what notes I'd hit on various records and told me I could do it, so I had to do it.


This wasn't intended as an LP. Virgin was very angry with me when I disengaged myself from them and they threatened us not to make an LP or there would be legal trouble. While Geoff Travis at Rough Trade was trying to sort that out and placate Richard Branson, they allowed us to make a few singles, which is what I did. And it allowed me to sing some songs by people like Violetta Parra and so on... that meant a lot to me. But I did them, more or less, as a musical journalism. I didn't feel these ideas had to last forever. It was Geoff Travis's idea to put them together onto an LP.


Julie Christie had been invited to do the narration on that by Victor Shoenfield, who made the film. They had asked the Talking Heads to do the music. They used one song of the Talking Heads for the opening credit tracks and it cost them 500 pounds. Well, since the budget for the whole film was just a few thousand pounds they couldn't afford them for the whole score. Julie said "I've got a friend who'll do it for really cheap." And it's true; one thing I'm really proud of is I work cheap. Geoff Travis at Rough Trade once said "you may not be the most successful or the best musician we've ever had here at Rough Trade, but you're certainly the cheapest." And indeed, I did the rest of the film score for 100 pounds. They wanted it released to help publicize the film and that's what I did.
I think making music for films is very good because you have to break out of the normal song cycle structure. The structure is given to you by the film. There is a structure but it's quite different and that makes you do things quite differently. I know Miles Davis had the same breakthrough when he did music for a French film, "Lift to the Scaffold." I really appreciate how useful that would have been for him when I was doing the Animals Film.


That was done when I was very isolated from other musicians, although I felt very at home spiritually with the musicians of that era, perhaps even more than with the musicians of my generation. The post punk people in England who were dealing in extraordinary surrealist combinations of punk and reggae and using old ska rhythms. There was a lot of great political music, like Jerry Dammers and, indeed, Paul Weller around that time, but musically it was very different from me because it was very guitar based and I come from quite a different line of thought musically. So I found myself, more or less, on my own and working as a kind of miniaturist there - just trying to get distilled, pure song on it. And as political as the songs are, the main exercise was really an aesthetic one. To try and to get essential song. Just to see how you could pare it down to that point. I'm also interested in artists in other fields in that way. Whether it's Samuel Beckett in writing or Mondrian in painting, it's a very interesting exercise... to try and pair things down like that.


Dondestan was after we left London and came to live up north of England, quite near the coast. We had spent some time in the 8Os in Spain. England was a difficult place to be, so we took any chance we could to go away. Alfie had written quite a lot of poems in Spain. I think there's something about sitting in a Spanish cafe in an out of season holiday resort with a glass of brandy in front of you which brings out a little poetry in Alfie's soul. Especially with the flamenco posters on the wall. So that provided the basis for Dondestan. One of the possible titles for the LP was based on a Cuban film called "Memories of Under Development (Memorias Su Desorio )," that was nearly the title of the first track anyway, and a lot of it has to do with that sense of underdevelopment and dispersal. Not in the third world, but right among us.


I had a rough period in the mid/early 9Os, musically speaking, and there were some problems here at home as well. I mean, I don't like people to go on about their problems because it's boring... but I broke my legs here in 1993 or 1994, I think, and had to spend some time in the hospital. I fell out of my wheelchair... so those kind of things delayed my activity somewhat. But as much as I get the exact sound I want when I'm on my own I get lonely, and music is a social act in the end. I was very happy to be reminded of Phil's studio and I went because it's near enough London where I can phone up people like Annie Whitehead and Evan without feeling that they had to spend 5 hours on a train to get to the studio. There again, I started exactly the same as I did with Dondestan. Which is, taking half a dozen pieces from Alfie's poetry notebooks and working on the music from that and then carry on with that momentum and finish it up myself.

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